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October 22, 2014

That is what a substantive debate looks like! Both candidates even mostly punted on the “who plays you in a movie” question ... pure music to this public policy scholar’s heart! The overall takeaway is simple: each candidate’s base can, through rose colored glasses, claim victory.

That said, this was a Martha Coakley win. She came across as decidedly more confident in policy nuance, transparency, and meaningfully connected to communities of color and women. Charlie Baker was not without moments that spoke to the independent and moderate democratic voters that he so needs, but his attempt to cast himself as the voice of middle-class voters was hurt by outsourcing, sick leave, and Ferguson responses.

Telling Moments:

  • Department of Family and Children Services. Going into the debate, this was an issue that Baker – with the aid of the much discussed PAC ad – sought to own and undermine Coakley’s presumed advantage here. His response to how to rectify the Department, however, was simply to agree with Governor Patrick’s call for 30 million dollars more for the agency. Ironically, Coakley conjured forth part of Baker’s presumed wheelhouse – managerial experience – outlining a restructuring of the agency and gently calling out social workers. She then reminded that while Secretary and Undersecretary of Health and Human Services, Charlie Baker did not address the caseload and training issues that face caseworkers, take seriously the difficulty inherent in a mission that calls to both protect kids and keep families together, and actually returned two million to the state one year. Coakley win.
  • Immigration and Driver’s Licenses. This was Baker’s best moment of the debate. While far right voters will not like some of what he had to say, he signaled to them that he would not agree to undocumented immigrants casting ballots but would continue the practice of allowing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants while calling on the federal government to finally act.  His stress on bipartisanship, use of the phrase “undocumented,” and willingness to continue in-state tuition, all while saying “no” to voting in local elections appeased the far right while simultaneously appealing to the moderates he needs to be elected.  Baker win.  
  • Women.  When seeking to walk back the perception that he “doesn’t get it” on women’s issues it would help Baker not to accidentally confuse the names of moderator Margaery Egan and candidate Martha Coakley. It’s a high-stakes debate, and everyone makes mistakes, but Baker made the mistake on the very question he needed to hit out of the park. Importantly, the slip of the tongue corresponded to Coakley truly commanding Baker on women’s issues.  In particular, she stressed that Baker’s problem on the Hobby Lobby decision was not “overthinking it” as he indicated, but in not instantly connecting it to the overall assault on women’s rights on issues like pay equity, women’s disproportionate need for job flexibility for sick children, etc.  Baker saved some policy face by mentioning he was the only one to have proposed a Hobby Lobby solution but the damage was done. A decisive Coakley win.
  • Boston-ides.  I expected to see considerably more “shout outs” to places not Boston.  Baker mentioned Dorchester quite a bit as this Boston neighborhood has “Steven Lynch Democrats” who find him appealing.  Smart but Dorchester is, you know, Boston...  Both candidates discussed Springfield on the casino issue, Coakley made reference to Framingham, Chelsea, and Revere on immigrant communities, and Baker referenced knocking doors in Mattapan and Springfield.  In the opening, Baker noted the unevenness of job growth in Massachusetts and should have done more to pick up this theme as it is a winning one – the candidate who gets the whole state.  Missed opportunity for both with slight advantage to Baker.
  • Communities of Color and Urban Neighborhoods.  Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.  Oh, Charlie.  Another slip of the tongue tripping over the name of the minority policing group that endorsed him.  Far more substantively, in response to the question on the potential relevance of Ferguson to Massachusetts, Baker’s response was that he had done a “ride along” in an urban neighborhood and the answer, essentially, was what  moderator and Boston Herald columnist Margery Egan summarized as midnight basketball.  It is 1991?  Coakley rightfully got tough here saying she did not need a “ride along” to know urban communities as she had been substantively working with them and communities of color for 18 years.  Baker looked hopelessly out of touch.  Big Coakley win – especially from the standpoint of GOTV.

Other moments worth briefly noting were the humanity Baker showed in demonstrating dismay over being labeled a “numbers over humans” guy.  It was appealing and felt genuine.  Coakley quickly countered the moment though by noting how the values that motivated his decisions were often antithetical to that as premiums did go up and outsourcing of mental health did occur when Baker took over at Pilgrim Health.  Both candidates were weak on SuperPac ads.  A Jeb Bartlet moment would have been beautiful here – “yeah, I kinda screwed you all on that one.”  The candidate who says first – “I need the PACs and hate them at the same time” wins the authenticity battle.

So there it is – a substantive debate that will not turn off either candidate’s rabid supporters.  It was a Coakley win for demonstrating policy nuance and “getting it” with women, the middle class, and communities of color.  Anyone who watched the debate cannot reasonably say she is not a quality candidate.  And that is the biggest Coakley win of all.

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